Primary Sources

American History

Primary Sources

”Signing the Declaration of Independence, 28th June 1776.” Painting by John Trumbull, commissioned 1817. Culture Club / Contributor / Getty Images



The Mayflower Compact (1620)
English Puritans, after landing near Cape Cod in Massachusetts, faced the real possibility that factionalism would destroy their community. They reached for a radical solution: a social contract for a “Civil Body Politic,” in which the colonists would govern themselves by submitting to laws—“equal and just laws”—that they themselves had written. Here, at the very beginning of the American story, one can discern the concepts of equal justice and government by consent of the governed. Learn more.

Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776)
Insisting that “all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion,” the Virginia Declaration of Rights was the first of America’s Founding documents to enshrine religious liberty as a universal natural right. Its democratic ideals, including the proclamation that “all men are by nature equally free and independent,” would influence the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Learn more.

The Declaration of Independence (1776)
Thirteen British colonies in America, in response to Great Britain’s “long train of abuses and usurpations,” unanimously declared themselves an independent nation. The Americans based their struggle for freedom not upon geography, ethnicity, or religious identity, but upon man’s universal natural rights. And they proclaimed their independence in words that have inspired democratic revolutionaries for nearly 250 years: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” The Declaration thus represents the first revolution in history based on the liberty and equality of every human soul. Learn more.

Slave Petition for Freedom to the Massachusetts Legislature (1777)
Seizing upon the revolutionary rhetoric of liberty and equality, slaves in Massachusetts and elsewhere in the colonies appealed for their freedom, insisting that they “have in Common with all other men a Natural and Unalienable Right to that freedom which the Great Parent of the Universe hath Bestowed equally on all mankind…” Though the petition failed, the Massachusetts Supreme Court soon concluded that the Constitution of 1780 abolished slavery. Learn more.

The Essex Result (1778)
A set of town resolutions for a proposed constitution for Massachusetts, the Essex Result, contains one of the clearest articulations of the core principles of the Founding. The Result explains the central concepts of the natural rights philosophy that informed the Declaration of Independence, including the inalienable natural rights from a Creator, the consent of the governed, and the social contract. Learn more.

Massachusetts Constitution (1780)
Written principally by John Adams, the Massachusetts Constitution captures the uniquely American understanding of natural rights and their place in the constitutional order. Its Declaration of Rights makes clear that rights are both protections against arbitrary rule and the source of legitimate republican government. Learn more.

New Jersey Recognizes the Right of Women to Vote (1797)
On February 22, 1797, the New Jersey Assembly passed an election law stating that “every voter shall openly, and in full view deliver his or her ballot...” With these words, New Jersey became the first political community in recorded history to give women the right to vote in a democratic election. Learn more.

Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom (1786)
On his gravestone, Thomas Jefferson had inscribed the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom as one his greatest achievements, along with the Declaration of Independence and the establishment of the University of Virginia. The document regards religious freedom as a “natural right” and insists that “our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions any more than our opinions in physics or geometry.” Learn more.

The Federalist Papers (1787-88)
The authors of The Federalist—Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay—wrote under the pseudonym of Publius, the Roman citizen credited with saving Roman republicanism. They sought to achieve something similar by defending the Constitution during the national debate over ratification. Their arguments won the day. No other work has been cited so often by the U.S. Supreme Court for the true meaning of the Constitution. Learn more.

The Constitution of the United States(1788)
No other political constitution in history ever began with the words “We the People…” As the world’s oldest functioning national constitution, the U.S. Constitution translates the principles of the American Revolution into a framework of limited government. The genius of the document is found in its central themes: government by consent, federalism, and the separation powers. The Constitution is the source of all government powers and also provides stern limitations on the federal government to protect the fundamental rights of all U.S. citizens. Learn more.

The Sharon Statement (1960)
In the fall of 1960, some 90 young conservatives met at the Sharon, Connecticut, home of National Review editor William F. Buckley, Jr., where they founded Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) to serve as an organization for young conservative activists. As their statement of principle, the group adopted the Sharon Statement, defending the principles that free will and moral authority come from God; political and economic liberty are essential for a free people and free institutions; government must be strictly and constitutionally limited; the market economy is the economic system most compatible with freedom; and Communism must be defeated, not merely contained. Learn more.

The Modern Academy's Embrace of Relativism (1989)
The Progressive and liberal revolutions against the Founding call for the replacement of politics by administration and the denial of individual natural rights in favor of the will of society and government. In 1989 the American Council of Learned Societies, which describes itself as “the preeminent representative of American scholarship in the humanities and related social sciences,” published an essay entitled “Speaking for the Humanities.” Six distinguished professors of the humanities at prestigious universities defend their definition of the humanities against attacks by, among others, Allan Bloom, Lynne Cheney, and William Bennett. Learn more.

The Mount Vernon Statement: Constitutional Conservatism: (2010)
Signed by a group of leading conservatives on February 17, 2010, the Mount Vernon Statement represents a recommitment of American conservatism to the principles of the Founding. The signatories declared that the propositions animating the Declaration and the Constitution undergird all conservative thought and public policy. “These principles define us as a country and inspire us as a people…serving not only as powerful beacons to all who strive for freedom and seek self-government, but as warnings to tyrants and despots everywhere.” Learn more.